Australia has become the climate change pariah of developed countries which are trying to deliver a fair share of emissions reduction.
No longer can we tell them our domestic government is our business, the bushfires and our pathetic record on emissions is their business. It has seemed incredible to other nations that we were simultaneously fighting record bushfires and exporting coal at the same time.
Not only did other nations come to realise that we are the world top exporter of coal and third for gas with aspirations to deliver more, but throughout the months of bushfire crises we have proceeded with more approvals for coal and gas mines with fervour. These new mines will continue to damage the health of our citizens, the sustainability of our environment and continue to damage a key tourism asset, the Great Barrier Reef.
Most of the Australian community now realises that the secure climate science accruing over several decades is denied or not understood by Mr Morrison and his government. They are babes in the woods and the woods are burning.
New Acland Coal (NAC) is aggressively pursuing expansion and application to use more water in the water-constrained Surat Basin. The environmental sustainability of the Basin is already in doubt for it hosts hundreds of gas mines and many coal mines, all prolific consumers of Great Artesian Basin and ground water.
The open cast mine opened in 2002 and in 2017 produced 8.6 million tones of thermal coal, over 90% for export. The mine has already consumed thousands of hectares of agricultural land, the town of Acland with a population of 400, 60 homes and 55 farms which were bought and left derelict.
The NAC mine is sited in a priority agricultural area in the Darling Downs, and has applied under the Regional Planning Interests Act for more of this prime cropping land for its expansion – part of the top 1.5 % of prime agricultural land in the state.
Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) opposes this application.
In November 2011, after 9 years of operation and under the threat of a further expansion of the mine, the local community wrote to DEA seeking help over the many health problems arising from the mine which had not been addressed by government. There were compelling details of air pollution, respiratory problems, noise and mental health issues.
The letter concluded, “This is the most abominable development on many environmental, health and social grounds, yet we still feel less than confident that the Queensland Government will reject this project outright”.
“We believe that Australia is a prosperous country whose Government should ensure that its people are treated fairly, with the right to live peacefully in their homes, to breathe clean air and drink clean water. This is not happening to the residents of Acland, Muldu or Jondaryan”.
Subsequently the medical experts of DEA made 5 submissions to the Queensland government and many state and federal ministers detailing the compelling health risks of the mine- without avail.
By 2017 little had changed and a 463 page judgement by the Land Court of Queensland verified the health and environmental complaints and in the case of water the judge said
“The principles of intergenerational equity are breached in at least one regard by the proposed revised Stage 3, with the potential for groundwater impacts to adversely affect landholders in the vicinity of the mine for hundreds of years to come.
“In conclusion, over 6 years this company had trampled on the complaints and health concerns of the local residents.
“Their concerns were ignored by the instruments of government which were supposed to protect them.”
The Queensland Court of Appeal dismissed the judgement and legal battles will continue to stop the health and environmental harms.
It is unusual in Queensland for applications from mining companies and their assessment by government to escape the confines of a closed system, whereby opinions of experts and the reasons for approval remain unpublished.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Australian governments have been subservient to the resource industries over the past two decades and remind many of opprobrium brought on Angola and similar underdeveloped countries by links to fossil fuel industries.
However court actions over Adani have exposed our appalling regulatory practices to the international community and now as a result of a Land Court hearing, expert witnesses exposed the air quality, health, water, and sustainability harms in the New Acland Coal applications.
The Australian bushfires have brought widespread sympathy and donations from many countries. Simultaneously the Australian government has been condemned in international media and by world scientists for its indolence and ignorance on climate change. Our national standing is diminished for we are seen to be harming the world and we don’t care.
Even before the bushfires there was growing international pressure for climate action to be included in trade deals with Australia; this will increase.
Both major parties have tacitly supported these happenings; both have the economy as their priority but neither has yet learned the first rule of economics- ‘no environment- no economy’.
Dr David Shearman AM PhD FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.